The summer between my second and third years of seminary, I spent two quiet weeks at the Monastery. I had just finished a ten-week CPE program at a New York hospice, and I was burned out. The guesthouse was closed at the time for the community’s summer vacation, and also because, without air conditioning, the guestrooms were oppressively hot and humid. I stayed on the ground floor in a room that had once been a chapel, ministered to by the cooling breeze off the river drifting through the crabapples outside my windows.
I spent nearly the whole of my first week in a rocking chair on the large cement porch overlooking the river, reading The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, all 450 pages of it straight through. I also slept a lot, deliciously seduced by the late afternoon heat. My days were largely solitary, except for the three Offices and two meals with the brothers. The old loneliness crept up, by this time a familiar, almost friendly presence.
The second week I hardly read at all. Mostly I sat staring at the glint of the green-brown river slowly dragging itself first north and then south and then north again. I stared, not to memorize the landscape’s contours, but to situate my roaming mind and spirit against a gentle backdrop. The melodious sway of the meadow’s golden swells lulled me into a reverie that was restful, even contemplative. Used I had become to all the glass and concrete of New York, which, even in the cool green of the Park still loomed, a hard and shining canopy, all this space, and me the only person in it, seemed the essence of eternity.
An image from a dream rose to consciousness: a field, overseen by a large white farmhouse, my hands stained in blood or wine. Here I was: a meadow, overseen by a large brick monastery, and my hands were clean and soft, moist and puffy with August humidity, but unclenched, unstained. Dare I say, washed clean? During those hours sitting and staring into the wide open space, I realized that my spirit and my body needed meadows and rivers and mountains and trees, needed air and starlight. The dawning understanding that now was the time to enter the monastery came first into my body as I found myself renewed and welcomed by the landscape.
Then, too, there were conversations with the community over meals and individually. Andrew told me, in his lilting Scottish brogue, “You’re a monk. I don’t say that to everyone, and I’m never wrong.” He also told me he loved me, and I believed him. I could hardly sit alone with him without the unnamed longing for home and father and love welling in my eyes. Often as we talked I’d let the tears roll down the soft hills of my cheeks. Andrew didn’t care, wasn’t the least bit startled. He was so completely himself that, like the meadow and the river, he had space for me.
I had a similar sense of spaciousness when I ate with the community. They engaged me gently, leaving me a distance that could have seemed reticent in another context. I intuited that distance, though, to be a respectful acknowledgment of the fullness and mystery of my humanity. It was as if the routine of hours marked by a bell, lived over a lifetime, opened one both to an understanding of the true impenetrability even of one’s own heart and also to an unhurried spaciousness for disclosure and connection, an acknowledgement that not everything has to be told or asked all at once, that true knowledge of another, of God, of ourselves unfolds over years and is, in end, no more than tentative, that, as the psalmist says, “the human heart and mind are a mystery.” (Ps. 64:6)
That way of relating was so different to anything I had known. My friendships and romances had arisen more from the quick spark and the hot flame, burning fast and bright, than from an unhurried courtship. Even in those relationships that lasted, I often felt as if I were living a role rather than inhabiting my own life and sharing that life with another. I wanted more space. I wanted eternity. Is this how Lazarus felt, I wonder, as his friends and neighbors slowly unwound the clothes that bound him, as he stepped from the cold damp of his tomb into the light and the air?
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